Clued up john mckie, the man behind the wee stinker crossword heraldscotland classic start menu for windows 8

THE wee stinker, the herald’s legendary and cunning little crossword, is on the move from mondays to saturdays, but john mckie, the legendary and cunning man who composes them, is going nowhere. McKie – or myops as he is better known – has been composing crosswords for the herald for over 40 years now and the wee stinker for 38, and it keeps him out of mischief, he says. The six-letter word “retire”? Not for him.

His fans will be pleased. Some of them are no doubt going to take a bit of adjusting to the idea of the wee stinker appearing on a saturday instead of a monday, but the special relationship between compiler and solver will still be the same. Wee stinker fans know and love mckie’s eccentric but forensic style – his crosswords are complicated and tough, they are wonderfully hellish, but if you’re willing to put the work in, crackable.Every week


they are also completely individual to mckie, like a signature or a retina scan. “yes, and I quite like that,” he says. “that’s the way it ought to be.”

McKie composes the wee stinker, like he’s always done, at his home in pollokshields in glasgow, which is filled with clues to the man behind myops. McKie, who is 78, is a former principal teacher of classics at hutchesons’ grammar school, so there are reminders of the classical world everywhere in the house, including a sculpture of homer on the living room wall by sandy stoddart of all people. Out in the hall there’s also a stoddart bust of mckie himself which his school presented to him on his retirement. There’s an expression of thoughtful intensity on the stone face, like the sculptor caught him just as he was coming up with a particularly difficult clue.Legendary cunning

McKie has a long-established procedure for how he works on the wee stinker, using a set number of patterns but trying always to come up with clues he has never used before. As fans of the puzzle will know, mckie works on the assumption that his solvers have a wide knowledge and that if they don’t know something, they will go and look it up, but his crosswords, like the man himself, are also a mix of the high and low brow. Clues in the wee stinker could be inspired by shakespeare or the bible, but they have also been inspired by dastardly and muttley or snooker (the game is one of the great loves of mckie and his wife lorna – they go to sheffield every year).

“now that has never been my intention.Legendary cunning I always want the solver to get it completed, to have the satisfaction of completing it. And the wee stinker is designed to ensure that he doesn’t do it too quickly. I want them to have the satisfaction of feeling that they’ve earned the victory.

“I don’t mind if somebody starts the crossword and doesn’t finish it because I build into them some kind of theme and the theme is always directing the solver away from the puzzle itself to something else. The one I’m most pleased with is I built the crossword round milton’s on the morning of christ’s nativity – I put parts of the poem in the puzzle.”

This kind of trick has been part of the wee stinker from the start in 1979 when mckie was first asked to devise the crossword by then herald editor arnold kemp.Doing crossword mckie was a young teacher at the time with five children and had joined the herald after coming up with a few crosswords while bored on a holiday in ireland. But it was kemp’s idea to ramp things up a bit and come up with a little crossword that would be infuriating, irritating but unputdownable – a wee stinker in fact.

From the start, says mckie, the aim was to make the wee stinker, which hands out a T-shirt and a £50 voucher to the winner every week, considerably harder than any regular crossword, although when the first one appeared mckie’s local shopkeeper said it was too easy.

“and that bothered me a wee bit,” he says. “it’s not that I want to make them hard, but I respect the solver and any self-respecting solver doesn’t want it to be too easy.Legendary cunning

“it’s all very well reading a book to learn how to do crosswords, and I’m in favour of that for people who want to learn, but the rules, it seems to me, are the rules that the solver deduces from doing the crossword. He realises when he’s doing the crossword in scotland that when he comes across a reference to grampian that the person setting the crossword maybe has the letters NE in mind – that kind of thing. Or he learns that when he sees the word doctor it’s going to be dr or perhaps MB or something like that.”

This is how mckie learned how to do crosswords himself when he was a boy growing up in the gorbals after the second world war. He and a group of friends started to get the herald everyday at school and did the crossword on the back page.John mckie at first, the young mckie had to look up the answers in the paper the next day to see which ones he hadn’t got right, but after a couple of weeks he didn’t need to look at the answers any more. He had got into the mind of the compiler of the herald’s crossword just as fans of the wee stinker get into his, or at least try to.

In person, mckie’s mind is a little of what you’d expect from a former classics teacher who compiles the wee stinker, and a huge amount that you wouldn’t. His brain, like his crosswords and his house, is definitely full to the brim, but he wears his history as a teacher lightly. He does admit though that he’s quite fussy about syntax . “I have been edited by people who have different views about syntax to me and I don’t like that,” he says.Every week he also admits that his one great prejudice is latin. “nobody is educated who didn’t have latin,” he says.

McKie’s wife lorna is the same – a former teacher with a sharp, impatient mind – and together they have a bit of a morecombe and wise thing going on, mckie adjusting his glasses and sucking on his pipe while his wife tells it like it is. Occasionally, it has been known for the couple to be referred to as mr and mrs myops such is their celebrity.

Mrs mckie tells me of a time, for example, when she was in las vegas on holiday and spotted a woman in a wheelchair doing the herald crossword (“lord knows where she got a copy in las vegas.”). “I told the woman that my was husband was myops and she almost jumped out of the wheelchair in excitement,” says mrs mckie.Doing crossword the mckies’ son david, who’s a lawyer, also tells me of a time recently that he and his father were at a burns supper together. “dad received a huge ovation when he was introduced as ‘myops, the compiler of the wee stinker’,” says david. “several people wanted his autograph.”

This is the kind of adoration the wee stinker inspires, which john mckie finds gratifying and a little frustrating too. “when the wee stinker first came out, almost instantly I was aware that there were syndicates. I think that’s fair enough – in fact, I think it’s splendid that a crossword can be a social thing.”

However, he is much less patient with the idea of going on the internet to find the answers. There are several blogs dedicated to crosswords and he has noticed people commenting on the wee stinker every week.Doing crossword “they come on to the blogs and say ‘what’s the answer to such and such?’ and if somebody gives them the answer it seems to me they are maybe more interested in the T shirt than anything else.” rushing to the internet for the answer is not how mckie thinks it should be done. “they often seem to be satisfied with the most ridiculous wrong answer. And sometimes there is something beyond that they haven’t considered – if it fits, that’s good enough. I think if you’re going to have any pleasure from it, you’re going to sit and think about it first.”

McKie is much more relaxed, however, about how the crossword world in general is changing – in fact, he thinks most crosswords are much more challenging than they used to be.Legendary cunning the question for him is always: is the crossword satisfying? Does it give the solver that great feeling of having cracked something that at first looked uncrackable? If it does, then it’s fine by him.

I ask him which clue of his he is particularly proud of, which he answers by quoting another compiler, ximenes of the observer. “he had the greatest clue of all time. ‘important city in czechoslovakia. Four letters’. I love it because it’s so, so simple. The answer is oslo. It’s brilliant because it’s in czechoslovakia, and it’s an important city. Could you ever get a more perfect clue than that?”

But surely he has one of his own that gives him satisfaction? Well, there was one, he says, a little reluctantly.John mckie he goes up to the piano and plays a few notes by way of introduction. "The answer was ‘happy birthday’," he says, "so I phoned a friend and said if you’re playing the tune happy birthday, what key is it in? Essentially what I wrote was G-GAG.” but that’s tough as hell, I say. “yes,” he says with a smile. “isn’t it.”